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The Importance of Mentoring Women in Science

June 18, 2010

The National Research Committee has issued a report encouraging women in science to seek multiple mentors during all stages of their career,  citing evidence that women research faculty may benefit from mentoring even more than men. For example,  the NRC has shown that female assistant professors with no mentors had 68 percent probability of having grant funding versus 93 percent of women with mentors (the same was not found to be true for male faculty with and without mentors).  More woman than men report having mentors: among tenure-track faculty, 57% of women and 49% of men were in mentoring relationships.

Cathy Trower of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at Harvard University has examined many issues related to career satisfaction and motivation of research faculty. According to her research, woman in research positions tend to be less satisfied with their careers than male research faculty.  Trower recommends that departments provide mentoring for all faculty to encourage a better sense of belonging. Mentoring helps address the feelings of isolation and marginalization often reported by women in academic settings. Among science, technology, mathematics and engineering faculty in the COACHE survey, women rated the importance of formal mentoring significantly higher than men did. Trower told AAUW, “Mentoring is crucial for STEM women because without it they might not be privy to the good old boys’ club or behind the scenes conversations that are crucial to fitting in the department and to getting tenure” (Why so Few?).  Interestingly, Trower reports that informal mentoring relationships are even more important for women in STEM careers than formal mentoring.  Trower believes that this may be because “informal relationships arise organically, and because they are not part of a formal process, they may feel more natural, closer, more trusting and honest, which may be especially important to women in STEM, who are often in a numerical minority in their departments.”  It is interesting to compare these results to other research looking at mentoring in the workplace (see cimrblog post from March 25, 2010)

A number of recent reports (cited below) have documented progress overcoming the dramatic under-representation of women in science careers. These reports emphasize the importance of mentoring at all stages along the career pathway. Headway has been made, but women are still dramatically underrepresented in faculty positions. In fact, although boys and girls graduate from high school with equal numbers wanting to pursue careers in science, there are substantial losses all along the pipeline. Women comprise only 22 percent of doctoral scientists and engineers employed full time (up roughly five percentage points over the past decade), and the numbers of women continue to drop off, as we move into senior faculty and research positions. Even among women receiving Ph.D.s, a disproportionate number go on to apply for faculty positions  http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12062 . Although many factors may contribute to this drop off, it is most certainly impacted by the challenges women face in balancing career and family in early-stage research careers. Anyone who has navigated the graduate student, postdoc and junior faculty pipeline can attest to the struggles — from low pay to frequent moves to expectations around pursuing grant support or applying for tenure within specific timeframes — that make it difficult for women who wish to start a family. Women often feel that they are forced to choose between a career or a family or to put their career on hold. One way that mentoring relationships can help women in science is by focusing on ways to achieve a work/life balance. I have to say, though, that much that I have found in the literature on achieving work-life balance in research careers isn’t satisfactory. New NIH guidelines on “early career researchers” are a step in the right direction — they allow for an early-career researcher to take a break for family and still retain early-career status past the regular 10-year mark. Still, mentors that can role model successful balancing of family and career, and structural changes in tenure policies and other institutional practices are much needed.
For more imformation on mentoring women in science see:
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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 21, 2010 12:19 am

    We see exactly the same challenges for women academics in the UK and, here at the UKRC, have worked with both universities and professional bodies to estalish mentoring programmes to help address this attrition. The UKRC is an initiative funded by the British government to help achieve a better gender gender balance in science, engineering and technology ( see http://www.theukrc.org). We work in partnership with organisations to set up ‘semi structured’ mentoring programmes, i.e. ones where mentees and mentors are properly trained, a handbook is supplied, and gentle monitoring takes place by email to see if pairs are on track. Otherwise we leave pairs to ‘do their own thing’. This light touch seems to work well. The kinds of outcomes women report include a boost in confidence and motivation, taking advice around going for promotion or orgnising maternity leave, and better career planning.

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